Have you wondered why some people enjoy reading and listening poetry? Poetry has had different purposes in society, some of these are to teach and express emotions. It is certainly one of the earliest humans inventions for using spoken language. Nowadays, we cannot only find poetry in books but also in everyday language, advertising and even stamped on our clothes. But how can we read poetry and understand it? Or better say, it is possible to understand poetry?
Here I am sharing with you some considerations for reading a poem and enjoying the process.
I. Identify the Theme – What is the Poem About?
Traditionally, on one hand, poetry has been taught through nursery rhymes to entertain children and help them to speak. On the other hand, it is usually associated with using language to praise, that is only one type of poetry, the odes, but not all of them focus on beauty.
One of the main things we must do after reading a poem is to ask ourselves what is the poem about.
Poetry has have different functions and shows a variety of themes. Through poetry, some people have dealt with suffering. For example, Wilfred Owen , World War II veteran, is well -known for his works where he represents the horrors of the war. In his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” we read the following lines:
“Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.”
We, readers, can clearly picture the desperate situation that is being described in few words which are used efficiently. The horrors of trenches are being described, it is possible to imagine the soldiers getting in action, trying to scape but dying because of the gas that has been throw by their enemy, which is the theme of that poem.
Poetry also deals with other emotions such as loss. For example, Edgar Allan Poe‘s poems focus on mourning. In his famous essay The Philosophy of Composition he defines poetry as a writing which is never too long nor too short in length but is a writing capable of elevating the soul and the excitement. Additionally, he mentions that melancholy is the most legitimate of all poetical tones. In his poem “Spirits of Dead” we can read:
“Be silent in that solitude,
Which is not loneliness—for then
The spirits of the dead who stood
In life before thee are again
In death around thee—and their will
Shall overshadow thee: be still“.
In the previous selection from Poe’s poem, we are able to evidence that the speaker is trying to convince the receiver that despite she/he has lost someone dear she or he is not alone, for the spirit of the dear one will still be with her/ him. Therefore, the poem is about dead.
It is important that for determining the theme, you should consider: the title of the poem, for it also gives information, and the context of when the poem was written, in which situation.
II. Find the Soul of the Poem
We can say that each poem has a soul that makes it what it is. A part from the poem that cannot be taken away, otherwise, without it the poem would not be the same. It could be a stanza or a single line that if you delated the poem cannot stand by itself.
Let’s practice this in Emily Dickinson‘s poem “Hope is the thing with feathers (314)”:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
In the first instance, we should identify the theme as we already saw. For that we consider the title, in this case, it alludes to “hope”. For this reason, for understanding the soul of the poem, we must notice which line or stanza cannot be taken, otherwise we will never know that it is referring to hope, which is the theme of the poem. The first line: “Hope is the thing with feathers” is the soul of Emily Dickinson’s poem for the rest of the lines complement the first line by giving more attributes to hope.
III. Identify the Imagery
A poem might have imagery, which are devices that allow us to picture what we are reading or listening inside our heads. In case a poem presents imagery, identifying it allow us to understand what the poem is about. What a poem says or means is the result of how it is said.
For example, J. R. R. Tolkien‘s poem “Shadow – Bride” has a lot of imagery:
“There was a man who dwelt alone,
as day and night went past
he sat as still as carven stone,
and yet no shadow cast.
The white owls perched upon his head
beneath the winter moon;
they wiped their beaks and thought him dead
under the stars of June.
There came a lady clad in grey
in the twilight shining:
one moment she would stand and stay,
her hair with flowers entwining.
He woke, as had he sprung of stone,
and broke the spell that bound him;
he clasped her fast, both flesh and bone,
and wrapped her shadow round him.
There never more she walks her ways
by sun or moon or star;
she dwells below where neither days
nor any nights there are.
But once a year when caverns yawn
and hidden things awake,
they dance together then till dawn
and a single shadow make”.
We can picture a lonely man sitting at night being illuminated by the moon, but he casts no shadow and stands so still that owls perched upon his head. Then a lady dressed in grey clothes comes under the twilight where the man is sitting and awakes him from that spell. Inside our heads we can imagine what the speaker is saying as if we were seeing the picture with our own eyes.
In the last line, we read: “and a single shadow they make”. This is relevant considering the beginning of the poem where we are told that the man casts no shadow, but now, when the lady with flowers on her hair comes, they both cast a shadow. This use of imagery can allow us to understood that the man can cast a shadow together with the lady for they are soul mates. With few words, Tolkien gave us a wonderful imagery to show us what love is.
IV. Feel the Emotions
Emma Mason (2010) in her book The Cambridge Introduction to William Wordsworth suggests that poetry can be understood as a text whose purpose is:
“enable readers to experience a ‘powerful feeling’ that grants insight into and a compassionate engagement with one’s community environment”.
In other words, poetry allows readers to experience sensations, to think about them and to imagine, for it is a sensorial. Poetry is a text which can also be heard.
Sometimes we cannot explain the emotions we experience when reading or listening a poem, and we simply love it, dislike it or it moves us to tears. This is part of the magic of poetry: it produces an effect that escapes logical reason because it speaks to our soul.
For enjoying a poem, it is fundamental to give importance to the feelings and sensations that the reading or listening can generate on us. In each person these experiences might be different, but all human beings can sense those emotions. If the poem that we are reading does not move us, it might be because we have not find the right poem for us yet.
As well as the sensations produced on the audience or readers, a poem might present emotions by its own. Which is known as tone, that is the speaker’s attitude towards the reader. This is achieved through rhyme, pauses and syntax (the way words are organized in a sentence).
To explain tone, let’s read a poem written by Ann Radcliffe called “Sonnet” which appears in her novel The Mysteries of Udolpho:
Now the bat circles on the breeze of eve,
That creeps, in shudd’ring sits, along the wave,
And trembles ‘mid the woods, and through the cave
Whose lonely sighs the wanderer deceive;
For oft, when melancholy charms his mind,
He thinks the Spirit of the rock he hears,
Nor listens, but with sweetly-thrilling fears,
To the low, mystic murmurs of the wind!
Now the bat circles, and the twilight dew
Falls silent round, and, o’er the mountain-cliff,
The gleaming wave and far-discover’d skiff,
Spreads the grey veil of soft, harmonious hue.
So falls o’er Grief the dew of pity’s tear
Dimming her lonely visions of despair.”
We can identify that the tone of the poem is sorrowful because of its words, such as “pity”, “despair” and “lonely”. Also through the pauses and its rhythm which give us the sensation of leaving melancholy behind and embracing fear. Additionally, the imagery complements the tone of the poem, for we can picture the bat flying in circles in the twilight that falls as when pain comes to our hearts.
VI. Consider the Structure and Shape
When finish reading a poem, consider how many verses the poem has for it might be crucial for understanding the poem as a whole. It is different to read a sonnet from reading an epic, their aim and effect are not only reflected in content but in form.
If the poem has rhymes consider them as well. Not all poems have rhyme. But in case it has, consider which type of rhyme is used. A poem with couplets produces a different effect than a poem that has rhyme royal. Rhyme might not necessarily occur at the end of each line (French style) but the beginning of words might rhyme too as seen in Anglo Saxon poetry.
Additionally, consider how words are written, for some poems must be read aloud for their writing form resembles more to their phonological form rather than the standard written form.
As well as form, it is fundamental to consider their shape, for not all poems are visually structured the same way. Shape poetry is also an option, a poem can have the shape of an object, a landscape or a living thing that might be related with to content.
Despite we could consider some other formal features such as metric and figures of speech, the most important aspect of poetry is to enjoy it. Not all poems will give us the same sensations and sometimes it is necessary to read them more than once.
Your Poetry Adventure:
✶ This post has been written in memory of Carmen, who passionately listened to my poetry lessons and readings, and who encouraged me to discover other poets.
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
– William Wordsworth. “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”